When the dying tyrant Nero proclaimed on his death bed, “Oh, what an artist that perishes in me!” his remarks revealed more than just the arrogance of one of history’s darkest figures. They also exposed the almost immutable cultural connection between art and great suffering — between the artist and the sufferer.
Here are our picks for the ten painters who displayed possibly the most tragic manifestation of the suffering artist — the suffering of the tortured mind.
10. Louis Wain
Probably the most famous artist known for specializing in the feline form, Louis Wain (1860–1939) was prolific in his production of anthropomorphic representation of cats. However, his autumn years were fragmented as he suffered from schizophrenia, an infamously complex disorder which fractures the usual distinctions between the psychic and the real. Delusions as well as distrust and hostility towards loved ones soon came to characterize Wain’s life. Certain psychologists, upon analyzing Wain’s work, have claimed that the progression of his illness can be witnessed unfolding in the increasing abstraction of his paintings. Judge for yourself.
9. Nicolas de Staël
Franco-Russian painter Nicolas de Staël (1914–1955) rose to become incredibly influential during the 1950s, a leading figure of his generation. Originally he produced work that redefined the classic landscape painting as a highly abstract form of art, though his later output traded the ether for the real, focusing on more traditional French imagery. A sufferer of depression, de Staël sought tranquility in Antibes, in the south of France. However, following an unsuccessful meeting with an art critic, he decided that he had had enough of life and jumped from his eleventh floor apartment into a deathly embrace with the concrete.
8. Richard Dadd
Victorian English artist Richard Dadd (1817–1886) was famed for his immensely detail-laden depictions of Oriental and supernatural scenes. His first recorded psychotic episode came whilst in a boat on the river Nile, where he thrashed around wildly and believed himself to have been taken mentally hostage by the ancient Egyptian god Osiris. Upon returning home to England, he began to believe that his father was the Devil, resulting in him stabbing his parent to death, fleeing to France and attempting to kill a tourist. He was committed to a psychiatric hospital (the famous “Bedlam”) where he created many of his know famous masterpieces. Dadd is thought to have suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, to which he was likely genetically prone.
Creator of one of the world’s most treasured artistic pieces, the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo (1475–1564) is an unmistakable figure in the history of art. However, several commentators have deduced signs of serious mental illness from his oeuvre. One such expert, Dr Paul Wolf of the University of California, argues that the underlying melancholia of some of the work reflects a depressive tendency, symptomatic, says Wolf, of bipolar disorder. Other speculative insights about the great artist’s state of mind can be traced to paintings by other artists, including a depiction of Michelangelo riddled with gout in a fresco by Raphael.
6. Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko’s (1903–1970) work was of great significance to the New York Abstractionist scene, incorporating influences as far-ranging as classical Greek narratives and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. However, he certainly had his share of demons to face and, having suffered from long periods of depression earlier in life, and amid ailing health, eventually reached the point where the will to death became overpowering. Leaving no note of explanation, he left the world to find his corpse, dressed in long-johns and socks, in a deep pool of blood, after severing the artery of his right arm with a razor.
5. Paul Gaugin
A good friend of Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gaugin (1848–1903) was also an extremely influential artist in his own right, working through the media of painting, sculpting, ceramics, prints and more. He was involved in the development of the French Post-Impressionist movement, as well as in the development of Symbolism, and the Synthetist and Cloisonnist styles. However, the French artist, who at one point attempted suicide, also suffered from severe bouts of debilitating depression, the scourge of many for whom the creative spirit calls.
4. Georgia O’Keefe
One of the pioneers of the struggle for women’s recognition in the art establishment, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) rose to become one of the most celebrated artists in the United States. Her work retained this importance throughout the rest of her 98-year life and beyond the grave. She died in 1986. However, it was an incident over half a century before this for which she will arguably be most remembered. In 1932, after falling far behind on a Radio City Music Hall mural, O’Keeffe suffered an intense nervous breakdown. It was only after a period of hospitalization and not painting for two years that she was able to rekindle her life’s love of creating art.
3. Fransisco Goya
Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828), to give him his full name, stood at the crossroads of great Spanish art, straddling the boundary between the Old Masters and the modern era of Spanish painting and printmaking. His romantic paintings inspired the likes of Bacon, Picasso and Manet. Yet the passionate instability we find in his depictions of loneliness, fear and alienation also provide us with a gateway into the artist’s own mental state. Suffering from a physical and psychological breakdown, Goya reported hearing voices, losing balance, progressive deafness and simultaneous tinnitus. Diagnoses range from Ménière’s disease to paranoid dementia, though it is unlikely we will ever truly know the root cause.
2. Edvard Munch
Most famous for his iconic image of modern alienation, the painting The Scream, Edvard Munch (1863–1944) is remembered as one of the true chieftains of the avant-garde. However, as he grew older, Munch felt an ever encroaching insanity creep up beside him and infect his very being, a propensity towards madness he may actually have inherited. Munch felt as though death were knocking on his door, and was subject to terrifying nightmares and visions of the macabre, which significantly influenced the tone and style apparent in his art. As his anxiety and hallucinations became more intense, he suffered a breakdown. After a period of psychiatric therapy, however, his symptoms began to dissipate and his work reclaimed its earlier form.
1. Vincent Van Gogh
It is in the world of art that we are most likely to come across a man whose life was defined by obscurity yet whose contemporary status is that of global fame. Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) fits this paragon perfectly; his vivid, lucid and emotion-drenched works so influential in our modern times that he has become one of art’s most iconic figures. Van Gogh, however, was a deeply troubled man. Prone to intense depression, epileptic seizures — probably as a result of immense consumption of absinthe — and manic bursts of creativity and energy, he famously cut off a portion of his own ear with a razor. Tragically, his genius was lost to the world at the age of 37, when he shot himself in the chest with a revolver. Ménière’s disease and bipolar disorder are just two of the many medical conditions that may have been behind his frequent bouts of mental illness.
Yard with Lunatics, Francisco Goya